Residential Zoning

Minimum Residential Lot Sizes and Shrewsbury’s Population Growth

During their Financial Workshop of December 17, 2013, the selectmen discussed the fact that Shrewsbury’s population was projected to grow significantly, creating further pressure on the town’s current budget. They indicated that it was unfortunate that Shrewsbury had not adopted residential zoning bylaws that would have reduced the total number of buildable residential units by increasing minimum lot sizes.

One selectman said that town officials had proposed increasing minimum lot sizes on four occasions in the past, but town meeting had rejected every proposal. They pointed out that on only one occasion did these proposals get even majority approval, let alone the 2/3 vote that is required for zoning changes.He blamed town meeting for not approving these zoning changes, which not only contributed to substantial population growth in the past, but will contribute to expected population growth in the future..

But these comments are disingenuous, since they imply that the town manager and the selectmen, at the time of these votes, did what they could to gain passage. The facts paint a different picture.

The last time town meeting was presented with one of these zoning change proposals was over 15 years ago, in 1998. The three earlier proposals took place sometime prior to 1990, before the town started realizing the effects of substantial population growth. But by 1998 it was well understood that the town was experiencing explosive growth, and many residents wanted town officials to address this problem.

The selectmen finally responded by calling a special town meeting on short notice for June 25th, 1998. The article would have reduced the number of buildable lots in town by increasing minimum residential lot sizes. But there was almost no publicity about it. I and many other people did not become aware that a special town meeting had been called for this purpose until a short time before the meeting date. The Planning Board’s public hearing on this article took place on June 22, only three days before the town meeting. I remember being surprised that the selectmen and other town officials did not make strong presentations in favor of the article at town meeting.

Opponents of the article included some long-time residents who owned properties that could be sub-divided. They explained that passage of the article would cause them economic harm since it would reduce the number of buildable lots on their properties. This argument swayed enough town meeting members to vote no and defeat the article. The vote count was 109 yes (56%), 85 no (44%). Note that a change of just 21 votes from no to yes would have resulted in passage of the article by a 2/3’s vote. This was hardly the decisive defeat that several town officials have called it on several occasions.

Given the closeness of the vote, I was surprised when town officials decided not to resubmit the zoning article. Doing so would have given those landowners time to submit plans before passage of the article so that they would be grandfathered. Or, revisions could have been made to the proposal that addressed or mitigated some of the owners’ concerns. A short time after town meeting I asked a selectmen when the selectmen planned to bring up this zoning proposal again, but was told that the selectmen were’ moving on’. Overall, my impression was that selectmen had placed this article before town meeting because of public pressure, not because they were strongly in favor. The two current selectmen who were also selectmen in 1998 should not be criticizing town meeting for not voting for this residential zoning change, when they did so little at the time to promote it, and would not resubmit it. After all, if they were so enthusiastic about having an operating budget override several years later that they put one to the voters three times in four years, why didn’t they show a similar enthusiasm for these zoning changes and resubmit them at least one more time?

But the town had one more opportunity to address residential zoning. A few years later the selectmen announced that a major update to the town’s Master Plan would be performed. As part of the process several public meetings were held to get input from the public. These meetings were well attended. Most participants expressed the view that the town’s top priority should be to control residential growth by increasing minimum lot sizes. Evidently town officials and the Master Plan Committee did not agree with these participants. The summary in the final Master Plan document listed 15 goals, and controlling residential growth by increasing minimum lot sizes was not one of them. And in the years following, town officials made no proposals to town meeting to increase minimum residential lot sizes.

Since the selectmen place almost all articles on the town warrant, it was their lack of leadership in this area over the last 15 years that has resulted in higher population and school enrollment growth than would otherwise have occurred if minimum lots sizes had been increased 10 – 15 years ago.

So it is the selectmen and other town officials who have been primarily responsible for the failure to enact more sensible residential zoning policies in Shrewsbury. Their current attempts to blame town meeting for failing to act in this area are misleading and self-serving.

Author: John Lukach       Posted: 1/31/2014